Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen looks at the Schindler's List exhibition at Sydney's Jewish Museum that features a copy of a list of more than 1,200 Polish Jews. (Photo: David Gray/Reuters)
Hollywood’s got issues. No, not Lindsay Lohan’s latest legal snafu or Charlie Sheen’s radio rants. Issues—suicide, war, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, deforestation—plucked from life and then amplified for mass consumption on the silver screen.
On the cusp of the 83rd Academy Awards, TakePart glances back at five Oscar-winning films, and the societal problem from which each drew inspiration.
Near the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war meditation, bombs squad technician William James uncovers a heartbreaking truth: The pull of war is stronger than the pull of his infant son. How does a soldier arrive at such an upside down frame of mind? Well, he may be in the throes of P.T.S.D., his neural synapses having short-circuited on the sand-swept vistas of Iraq.
Barefooted, malnourished children zigzagging through suffocating streets designed by a contortionist. No running water or electricity. Fly-infested outhouses. This is the Mumbai, India, slum sprawl depicted in Danny Boyle’s kinetic, rags-to-riches tale. But, for every fictional protagonist that riddles his way out of abject poverty in front a national television audience, how many of the planet’s 3 billion people will continue to live on less than $2.50 a day with no hope of a happy ending?
The little girl in the red coat wandering the streets during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto—this is the oft-remembered image from Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece. One of only four color spots in a three-hour black and white film, the image symbolizes the innocence of the slaughtered Jews and the warning sign that was missed—or ignored—by the Allied Powers. “Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower…knew about the Holocaust taking place,” said Spielberg in a 1993 interview. “It was as obvious as a little girl wearing a red coat walking down the street.”
The tragedy of Robert Redford’s suburban drama isn’t the accidental death of a prodigal son, or even the subsequent depression, suicide attempt, and psychiatric hospitalization of, Conrad, the son who lived. Rather, it's when that guilt-ridden teenager opens his heart for help only to be greeted by an icy emotional void he calls mother. Sadly, in the sequel-happy Hollywood of 2011, this story never reaches the cineplex, its penetrating truth relegated to a primetime slot on the Lifetime Channel.
Dated now, but avant-garde more than half a century ago, Billy Wilder’s story of binge drinking, depression, and despair in the Big Apple was the first film to treat alcoholism as a serious, entrenched societal problem. In Don Birnam, a self-loathing, creatively challenged writer who hasn’t “touched the stuff for ten days now,” we’re exposed to the full gamut of addictive behavior: inner torment, cunning lies, self-depreciative begging, petty thievery, paranoia and vivid hallucinations.